Here’s a story I tell myself: I don’t like sandwiches. They taste gross to me. They make me feel a little queasy and sad every time I try one.
Here are the facts: I like some kinds of grilled cheese. I like BLTs when the mayo is right and the tomato is flavorful. I like a very specific sub from a very specific place if they remember to add hot peppers. I can enjoy a PB&Honey with just the right kind of bread.
The thing is, we all have stories we tell ourselves. When we stop to pay attention, what we are really saying is not “I don’t like anything under this umbrella” but rather “I don’t like a lot of things this umbrella covers”. We use it as shorthand. It’s easy, but it’s not The Truth. The truth is, there are a lot of things you DO like if you would give yourself the space and time to reflect.
What does that have to do with libraries and books and The Book Squad? Thanks for asking, let me tell you.
In our line of work, we run into a lot of folks who say things like “I don’t read Romance.” “I don’t enjoy Sci-Fi.” “I don’t do Fantasy.” Sometimes, they specifically indicate “I really only like Literary Fiction”. Literary Fiction is usually a shorthand created to mean “Great Writing”. And not to burst any bubbles (or anger the many committees of people who judge these things) but Great Writing is quite often subjective. Sure, there is some truly bad writing out there, but that’s easier to spot than Great Writing. Because Great Writing can mean something different to all of us and to paraphrase...you know it when you read it. Meaning when YOU read it. Because it’s to your taste.
What those folks do seem to agree on is that Genres are not considered “great writing”. They are trope-filled, predictable schmaltz with so-so writing. And this, my friends, is where I want to say, “Hold up there… A BLT IS A SANDWICH, POLLI! REMEMBER THAT WHEN YOU START BLATHERING ON ABOUT HATING SANDWICHES." (Dear Reader, she will in fact not remember this, but let’s move on to our salient point here…)
We want to take this opportunity to explore books that might surprise you or challenge your thinking. Something we hear in book clubs often - or have even said ourselves is - “I don’t usually like (insert genre here) but I really like THIS.” Let’s talk about some examples of a “genre book” that is shelved in Literary Fiction. (Looking at you, Pride & Prejudice, AKA The Prototype of all romances, ever. Or you All the Pretty Horses, riding and roping and scenic views. Or pretty much anything Margaret Atwood writes. I could go on.)
Let’s take off from Atwood and look at some writers who are lauded for their literary style, but they write Speculative (genre) fiction. Leah, the leader of the Speculative Fiction Book Club, helped me to provide these examples of books for folks who generally feel that they “don’t like” Spec Fic, but would consider themselves Lit Fic readers. In no particular order, let us introduce you to our suggestions:
Nominated for a bevy of prestigious awards (and winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2021), Suzanna Clarke's sophomore novel is a leisurely, peaceful, decadent reading experience. The story is clever, the writing is vivid, the characters are complex. Everything you look for in a literary masterpiece, PLUS a healthy helping of fantasy.
Perfectly constructed and elegantly written literary sci-fi (or, cli-fi) about a family's struggles in Florida in the near distant future. This is one of the more heartfelt and hopeful imaginings of a climate change created dystopia that you will ever read.
A complex, brilliant slave narrative that employs magic as a metaphor for the Underground Railroad, for storytelling, for memory, and for connections formed, broken, and formed again. Hiram, our main character, learns to harness his powers of conduction - again, metaphorical and literal - to save himself, those he loves, and those he has lost.
Kazuo Ishiguro is a Nobel laureate, which should tell you most of what you need to know about the quality of his prose. Klara and the Sun achieved new heights with its unforgettable narrator, an AI caretaker. It's a story of stark humanity seen through the eyes of our most ambitious creation.
Grim fantasy with a really FAR OUT premise, this one raised the eyebrows but then captured the hearts of even the most devoted speculative fiction AND lit fic readers. Dark but meditative and oh-so-imaginative, Sunyi Dean's debut has made her one to watch.
Literary fiction chronicling a plague that wipes out most of humanity, throwing us into a wild, dystopian future. It asks us: can the loss of most of humanity deprive us of our humanity? Written in 2014, this story has become especially relevant of late. This story stayed with me for months. (I will note, Mandel does not herself classify this as Sci-Fi, but it is speculative without a doubt.)
Now thoroughly convinced and in need of more recommendations? See a full list here and happy reading!
-Polli Kenn is the Readers' Services Coordinator and Leah Newton is the Readers' Services Technician at Lawrence Public Library.